04  Jan
A shiny new year

The new year begins with a cold snap in the East, horrific floods in the Midwest, plummeting stock prices both here and globally, a presidential primary race that’s somewhere between high drama and low comedy, and as noted in my previous post, the impending merger of two of the biggest seed companies in the world. So far I haven’t read much in the popular press about the Dupont-Dow merger, but there’s been some concern expressed about reduced competition having an impact on seed prices. Perhaps, but in my opinion it won’t be great. Short-term it appears that there won’t be much change in the prices of seed corn or most forage seed for 2016 though this has nothing to do with the merger. Both dairy farmers and cash crop producers aren’t in a particularly good cash position as we head into the new year, though it appears that milk prices may soon increase enough to put many if not most dairies back into the black. Prices of 2016 cash crops, particularly grain corn, are of course as yet unknown but some scarily low prices are being mentioned by market analysts. Of course low grain prices are good for livestock producers–can’t make everyone happy.

I’m hopeful that this year will see some action on a national basis regarding the labeling of GMO foods. (By “action” I mean a decision, not simply more contentious lobbying on both sides of the issue.) My preference is no labeling, but the technology is there to have food labels contain much, much more consumer information than it presently does. The question is if the additional information would be worth what it would cost the food manufacturers to do so–a cost that would certainly be passed down to consumers. One can always hope…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 4, 2016, 1:37 pm | No Comments »

One of the big news stories is the impending merger of Dupont-Pioneer and Dow-Mycogen. However, long-time observers of the farm seed business shouldn’t be surprised since seed company mergers are nothing new. You don’t have to have grey hair to remember the Dupont’s purchase of Pioneer, nor Monsanto acquiring several national and regional seed companies. Look at some of the old seed company names–Taylor-Evans, Beachley-Hardy, Northrup-King, etc.–suggests that mergers have been going on for about as long as the farm seed business itself.

Some folks worry that a Dupont-Dow merger will reduce the competitiveness of the field crop seed business. While this may happen, the companies have to report to shareholders whose focus is the bottom line and what needs to be done to protect or improve it. Many years ago an old seed company executive told me that the field crop seed business has never been a high-profit one. For instance, the price of seed corn is moderated in part because not only are there a handful of big, multinational seed companies selling farm seeds, but many regional seed companies as well. Invent a new drug to control cholesterol–such as Lipitor–and the potential profits are huge, at least as long as the patent is in force. But if a seed company releases a new corn hybrid it may be competing with a dozen seed companies large and small offering hybrids with similar performance. Nobody makes a “killing” in the seed business: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: December 24, 2015, 6:08 pm | No Comments »

05  Nov
Bacon up

So, bacon and other processed meats have been declared by the World Health Organization to be carcinogenic, in the same class as cigarettes and asbestos. What some of the reports haven’t mentioned is that 99.9% of the products that the WHO has investigated as potential carcinogens have been determined (by the WHO, anyway) as carcinogenic. So your morning strip of bacon and ham sandwich has plenty of company, along with paint and the air in even a modest metropolitan area. But it’s useful to look at the likelihood of processed meats causing cancer: According to the WHO, about one in every 2400 cancer deaths can be attributed to diets that are high in processed meats. If you don’t eat processed meat every day, the numbers are even less worrisome.

Another point most reports neglected to mention is that WHO’s conclusion was anything but unanimous: The organization likes to have its findings unanimous, but in this case there were a significant number of scientists on the committee that looked at the same data and didn’t detect a connection. Even more specious is the declaration that red meat is “probably carcinogenic”. It may be good at this point to remember that at one time eggs were so high in cholesterol that folks who had eggs for breakfast more than rarely should start making plans for their heart bypass surgery, and that whole milk and butter were similarly harmful—use low fat dairy products and margarine. They were wrong about those, and perhaps are wrong about meat. So eat, drink and be merry.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 5, 2015, 5:31 pm | No Comments »

They say it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Perhaps, but there are risks. While on a 4-day golfing trip to Myrtle Beach with a bunch of buddies, a friend decided to buy a new set of irons. After doing so he called his wife with the news, with a bit of trepidation about her reaction since they hadn’t discussed the purchase. But she didn’t say much, which gave him a feeling of relief.

It shouldn’t have; when he arrived home he discovered that his wife had completely refurnished their livingroom, and while his new set of irons weren’t cheap they were trivial compared to the cost of the furniture!

It’s not quite the same, but over the years I’ve had farmers call me, asking “What would happen if ______.” with the end of the sentence usually some foolhardy or ill-advised crop practice. I’d tell them they absolutely should not do it, at which time they’d fess up that they already had. This includes drilling oats in a field that the previous year had received five pounds of atrazine per acre (five times what he should have used), and spraying a new alfalfa seeding with 2,4-D, an application that was, is, and probably always will be off-label. So in a way they were hoping for permission after the fact, and when this wasn’t forthcoming, seeking forgiveness. (“I forgot how much atrazine I used last year.” “Gee, I’ve used 2,4-D on alfalfa seedings before and while it curled the seedlings up it never killed them.”)

Words to the wise: If it doesn’t seem like a good idea it probably isn’t, and when it comes to questionable cropping practices it’s wise to look before you leap.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 2, 2015, 4:10 pm | No Comments »

03  Sep
Crazy stuff

This has nothing to do with crops or even agriculture, mostly about mysterious happenings that I can only partly understand. I’m not a believer in ghosts, extraterrestrials or other supernatural stuff, but sometimes…

First was the mystery of the wave action in my toilet bowl whenever the wind was blowing. Being a guy I spend a certain amount of time each day standing in front of the bowl, (lid up of course) peering in to assure acceptable trajectory and aim. (I try to remember to put the lid down afterwards and almost always succeed, since the few times I did’t resulted in unfortunate incidents with the other resident of the household). Anyway, I asked a certain e-list why there were small but discernible waves, and was told that it was because of the pressure differential as the wind blew across the top of the standpipe. Now this sounded like a perfectly logical explanation until I considered that the hole in the standpipe is no more than 2″ in diameter, and a 10 mph wind blowing across it would seem to have very little impact on several gallons of water 20 feet below (we have a 3-story house so the top of the pipe is WAY up there). So while the answer may be technically correct, it strains credulity.

The second happened this week. We have an indoor-outdoor thermometer in our 2nd floor bedroom; a wall clock-thermometer reading the inside temperature and a remote unit that sits outside to measure outside temp. It worked fine last year but this spring when I put the batteries back into both units the outdoor temperature wouldn’t register. I put new batteries in both, even getting so desperate as to read the instructions (I know, hard for an adult male to admit). No dice. So I said the hell with it and removed the batteries from the outdoor remote and set it on my dresser. Over the weekend the batteries in the clock-thermometer died so I installed new batteries and suddenly I had an outdoor temperature measurement! Huh? I first figured that it was reading from the remote unit on an identical unit that we have in our kitchen, but that’s around the corner and down a flight. Then I noticed that the outdoor temperature was slightly different on the two clock-thermometers. Then I thought–gee, maybe our neighbors have one of these little remote units. I did some surreptitious checking and sure enough, strapped to the side of their house was a remote unit! It’s simply amazing that the unit has the power to send a signal down one story, across two yards and through a thick bush. I told my neighbor that when the batteries on his remote die he might see me sneaking into his yard with a couple of replacement batteries. He no longer even uses the thermometer, said he was surprised the batteries were still good. Now I’m not positive that his unit is what’s sending what appears to be accurate temperature readings to my clock-thermometer but it’s the only explanation I have. Other than ghosts, that is.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: September 3, 2015, 12:05 pm | No Comments »

I call myself semi-retired but the emphasis is on the semi since I go to the “office” every day–even more often than when I worked full-time for Miner Institute. That’s because the Institute’s office then was 26 miles away while now it’s right in my home and I’m on-line every morning year-round. True, I don’t get out into fields nearly as much as I used to but there’s still some of that, and responding to questions from farmers, Extension folks and agribusiness professionals usually requires a good memory more than “feet on the ground”. People seem to appreciate my attempts to answer their questions–and I always reply to them, but their questions also keep me informed as to what’s bugging them (often literally). I still do a fair number of farm and agribusiness meetings each year, another source of two-way communication; heading for Buffalo in a week to speak to a group of farmers and feed company nutritionists.

Most of my business these days is at the keyboard since I currently write monthly columns for two farm magazines, Hoards Dairyman and Farming, and occasional articles for three others including publications in Australia and New Zealand. Hoard’s Dairyman has Central/South America and Japanese editions so between these and the monthly Miner Institute Farm Report which has a fairly large subscriber list of its own, in one way or the other I “get around”, so to speak.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 3, 2015, 12:25 pm | No Comments »

“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

This anonymous quote is especially noteworthy this summer, as about the same amount of rain in June is affecting field crops much differently 100 miles or so from here than it is locally. Both regions–Northern NY and the region south of Lake Ontario both north and south of I-90 (NY State Thruway)–generally got between 5 and 6 inches of rain in June after a moderately to very dry May. But what havoc they wreaked on crops differs greatly depending on soil type. In much of Northern NY the soils are glacial tills without a lot of clay content. Oh, there are areas especially along Lake Champlain and parts of NW Franklin County where there are some clay loam soils but much of the crop production is on lighter soils. Yesterday I made my annual trip to Cornell University to speak on crop production to a group of vet college graduates from all over North America and a few foreign countries. My trip took me just East of the Finger Lakes so not into the heaviest soils but it was obvious that the corn crop wasn’t as good as much of it in this region. A lot of corn there was knee-high to waist-high, whereas around here the farmers who got their corn planted in May have corn over their head for the past week. I used to call heavy clay loams “Sunday soils” because they were too wet to work on Saturday and too dry on Monday, but just right on Sunday–the traditional “day of rest”. This was an an exaggeration of course, but the point was that tilling a clay loam when it was wet could lead to problems that would persist for the entire season.

At any rate, what’s worse than a 6″ layer of touchy topsoil? Less than 6″ of topsoil! I encountered this in Illinois a few years ago, Corn Belt territory where we often think that the topsoil is several feet deep–and sometimes it’s that and more. But on this huge dairy farm they were practicing minimum tillage–no moldboard plowing–because the layer of topsoil was so shallow that moldboard plowing would bring up the coarse sand that underlaid the 3 or 4 inches of topsoil. Not surprisingly this soil didn’t handle droughty conditions well at all!

Ev

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 14, 2015, 11:28 am | No Comments »

02  Jun
Transitions

My long-time GP (20+ years) recently retired, and the family practice to which The Bride and I matriculate asked if we wanted to remain with that practice. We said we wanted to stay there since we always felt we were well cared for, even if it’s in Plattsburgh, almost a 3-hour drive now that we’ve retired. The next question: Would Ilike a nurse practitioner or a real doctor? (“real doctor” wasn’t the term used but it might as well have been). I said that I’d like a doctor since I don’t want anyone practicing on me. Besides, one time our GP was away and I had to see the nurse practitioner because I chose that inopportune time to come down with shingles. I went into her office and she asked me how far the rash extended since it was obviously somewhat south of my waistline, which is as far as she’d asked to disrobe. So I showed her, and I’m not sure that’s what she had intended.

My first visit to our new GP was in April, and he walked in carrying an IPod and stethoscope. That’s it. I told him this would take some getting used to, that I was used to this Yoda-like person barely 5 feet tall shuffling in with a thick manila folder containing all my records for the past 20+ years, then sitting down surrounded by stacks of manila folders of all her other patients. Her notes (from over 40 visits) were all in long-hand, never transcribed so to find a piece of lab data she’d pore back through page after page of charts, reports, etc. She was wonderful, caring, and all a person could ask for in a GP. Her office staff simply adored her. But in technological terms she was so “yesterday”–not at all surprising since she was nearly 80. I’m sure we’ll like our new GP, but it’s like starting all over and not just for us since he commented that all her notes were in longhand and therefore not easily accessible, especially for a family practice as large and active as this one.

The point of all this–and I’m sure by now you’re wondering: Which are you? Still in the “longhand” age or have you moved into the 21st century and are relying on databases, computerized records, reporting information in such a way that it can be used to evaluate your farm business? In some way I’m “preaching to the choir” since you’re reading this post on-line, while the people I’d really like to reach are those who still don’t use the internet.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: June 2, 2015, 9:52 pm | No Comments »

I just read where a new type of earworm is making its way north from South and Central America where it’s been devastating a variety of crops. The insect, Helicoverpa armigera, is a cousin of the earworm but is potentially much more damaging, attacking not only corn but soybeans, cereals, vegetables and flowers as well. The bad news: Insecticides aren’t effective on this critter, as it’s developed resistance to all classes of insecticides that have been tried on it. Almost $1 billion of U.S. crops are in the areas most susceptible to H. armigera, many times this depending on how extensive its eventual spread.

The good news: The one control that seems to work is crops genetically engineered to contain the Bt gene. Bt cotton resists this insect pest, and entomologists think that Bt corn and Bt soybeans will be similarly resistant. Something to keep in mind as some in society are in favor of outlawing all genetically engineered crops. (I think that those of us in agriculture would do well to start referring to these crops as “genetically enhanced”, because that’s just what they are.) Not a new idea of course, but the timing seems right.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 9, 2015, 11:39 am | No Comments »

Last week I spoke at the annual meeting of a California-based dairy nutrition company. The meeting was at the plush Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach; the temp there was 85F and I was wishing they’d had the meeting there in February when we were freezing even in our winter quarters in Virginia! When I came into Extension work in the mid-1960s we had about 30,000 dairy cows on 1000 dairy farms in Northeastern NY. There were half a dozen feed companies with a total of about 10 nutritional consultants serving these farms-all employed by one of the feed companies. so, a couple hundred potential clients for each consultant. It’s no wonder that some farms didn’t see their feed company consultant for months on end. At the Miami Beach meeting each nutritionist reported having clients with a total of at least 50,000 cows, but with the typical number of cows per farm in the western U.S. it’s likely that the nutritionist could visit each of his/her dairies at least a couple times per month. And he nutritionist is employed by the farmer, not by a feed company. But the biggest difference is what computers have done to feed programming and ration balancing. Even if the nutritionist can’t be on the dairy in person there’s information at hand via computer to permit timely adjustments in rations or other herd management chores. Back in the 1960s one of the jobs of Extension educators was to work with farmers on feed programs since there was a big difference in ability between the various company-employed representatives. That’s not the case anymore; computerized feed programs have greatly leveled the playing field, and Extension folks can do things a lot more productive that chasing around after dairy ration challenges. Times have certainly changed, and for the better!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 19, 2015, 10:58 pm | No Comments »

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